WOONSOCKET – Music to Nick Smith’s ears isn’t the sound of birds chirping in a meadow, waves breaking on a beach, or a brook babbling through a forest. It’s the thud of a 16-pound ball lurching down a series of wooden planks before crashing into 10 pins.
For just over three months, that sound went silent on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket, as Walnut Hill Bowl – and bowling alleys like it across Rhode Island – were forced to close their doors amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But alleys have been permitted to welcome patrons back to the lanes during the current phase of the state’s reopening, albeit in limited capacities, and Walnut Hill Bowl reopened its doors to the public on Monday.
Smith, the general manager of Walnut Hill Bowl, said that when he received word that bowling alleys would be able to welcome back customers, the first thing that went through his mind was safety.
“The business itself takes a hit, but the biggest struggle is the safety, putting the guidelines in, making sure COVID has reduced its spread,” Smith said on Friday. “No spread is what we’re going for here. We are doing everything in our possibility to keep it as close to that 100 percent number.”
How is Smith working to achieve that goal? At Walnut Hill Bowl, he says, the alley has totally changed from what it was back in February.
Additional room has been made inside the building for walking to and from the lanes; all bowling balls have been removed from the lanes – to be distributed personally to help “reduce the transfer of hands from one ball to another,” and make the cleaning process easier; guests are asked to leave everything at the lanes when they’ve finished a game, which Smith says helps reduce foot traffic at the front desk; and signs are posted throughout the building identifying where to stand and in what direction to walk.
The 32-lane alley has had its maximum capacity reduced to 16 lanes, allowing for a break in between, which provides players the space necessary to maintain social distancing.
Additionally, half the bar cannot be utilized and people cannot stand around the bar countertops, the food menu is limited with reduced hours, and video games and vending machines have been temporarily shut down.
“We want to make sure we had everything under control first,” Smith explained. “A good quarter of our building is shut down, the whole building looks almost completely different.”
Walnut Hill Bowl reopened on Monday, with reduced hours of 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Smith said the goal at the bowling alley remains what it always has been – to provide family-friendly entertainment.
“I feel it’s very important. For me personally being cooped up in the house, there’s only so many things you’re able to do in the house,” he said. “You want to be able to get out and have a good time. It’s trying to get back to some sense of normal traditions, normal lifestyles. We all look for normal but realize there have to be some changes. I feel it’s very important to be able to offer these, spend time with family or friends, just come and hang out, get back to something that’s enjoyable, occupy time for a couple of hours.”
“The public and staff seem to be very happy that we’re open,” he continued. “Right now, we’re taking all types of reservations, people are calling to make reservations for the weekend, and the staff was very happy when I called to have a meeting to come back. With social media and word-of-mouth, everybody was really happy to come back down.”
Ultimately, the reopening of Walnut Hill Bowl – and of all bowling alleys across the state – is about ensuring that the state rolls a strike when it comes to health and safety, Smith said.
“Safety always comes first, especially in this building,” he said. “Hand-in-hand is the friendly attitude that we provide. I like to make sure we’re above the top when it comes to the service we provide … I’m very happy that I was able to organize and structure it with great measures here.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette